Forms of Devotion
What are Novenas?
If you mention novenas, you're likely to get mixed reactions, with extremes at both ends of the scale.
Some view novenas as extraordinarily powerful prayers with guaranteed results — like a legal contract with God: if you fulfill the conditions, God grants your request.
Others feel that novenas are simply a waste of time — an outdated form of prayer practiced by overly pious people looking for spiritual magic.
As is often the case, neither extreme is accurate, though each reflects some truth. Making a novena is indeed a valid, powerful way to pray, but if misunderstood can become an act of superstition rather than prayer.
What It Is
The word "novena" comes from the Latin meaning "nine each." It is a prayer or Holy Mass that is offered for nine consecutive days.
Scripturally, novenas take their origin from the nine days of prayer before Pentecost. After the Ascension, the apostles and disciples, in obedience to the Lord, gathered in the upper room and devoted themselves to constant prayer, together with Mary, the Mother of Jesus (Acts 1:4-5).
The nine days of prayer can also be considered as a representation of the nine months of Jesus in the womb of Mary. Like Jesus our Head, we His Body are also to be born of Mary and the Holy Spirit. The nine days of prayer were gestation prior to the birth of the Church on Pentecost. Since then, each novena can be considered as a time of gestation before a new outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
What It Is Not
Over the centuries, the practice of making novenas grew in popularity, and inevitably, abuses developed like weeds in a garden.
One abuse is absolute guarantees of positive results. There are no absolute guarantees. Prayer must always be made according to the will of God. Even Christ Himself prayed, "Not my will, Father, but Yours be done."
We pray with trust that God will give us what He knows is best for us.
Another abuse is the guarantee that a particular novena will never fail if we publish the novena prayer. These mistaken ideas can often cause great confusion and lead to superstition.
Novenas should be considered persistent prayer. Jesus exhorted us to continually ask, seek, and knock for what we need (Lk 11:10), and he gave us strong examples of the value of persistence in prayer — like the widow who kept pleading with the judge (Lk 18:1-8) and the man who woke his neighbor in the middle of the night to give him bread (Lk 11:5-9).
St. Faustina also gives us a powerful example of persistence in prayer. Novenas were an important and regular part of her spiritual life. She made novenas of different kinds and for various needs. For her they were times of intense and persevering prayer.
For us, too, novenas can be times of persevering prayer for special needs and of preparation for solemn feasts.
Novenas also can help us to focus our intentions so that we can more effectively give thanks for God's response to our needs — whatever they are — placing ever greater trust in the Lord Jesus.